The Economist has published an informative chart about the different Syrian rebel groups and the results aren’t encouraging: 10 out of 12 groups are Islamist, though there is some overlapping in leadership. One of the non-Islamist groups is an offshoot of a Kurdish terrorist group, leaving only one potentially Western-friendly rebel force.
Two of the three “main fronts” are Islamist. The only major secular entity on the chart is General Salim Idriss’ Supreme Military Command. The SMC is part of the Free Syria Army. Idriss is the rebel leader that Senator John McCain (R-AZ) recently met with. The Free Syria Army was founded by Riad al-Assad but his title as commander-and-chief is mostly symbolic.
It is important to note that Riad al-Assad long warned the West that if his Free Syria Army was not supported, foreign-backed extremists would take control on the ground. And a look at the rest of the chart proves him right.
The second “main front” is the Syrian Islamic Front, a Salafist coalition led by the Ahrar al-Sham. The third “main front” is the Syrian Liberation Front, another Islamist alliance that is led by Saqour al-Sham, the strongest force in Idlib. It also includes Liwa al-Tawhid, an Islamist group leading the fight in Aleppo.
The most powerful fighting force on the ground is Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of Al-Qaeda in Iraq that has publicly pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. It has about 7,000 fighters and is absorbing defectors from the less-capable Free Syria Army.
The Farouq Battalions is another Islamist fighting force, including more hardline Salafists and so-called “moderate” Islamists. It originally formed in Homs, but now has units across the Syrian battlefields. The Ghurabaa in Aleppo and Raqqa is a smaller but growing Islamist force.
Ansar al-Islam is a coalition of Islamist fighters near Damascus. It does not appear that it has a connection to the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq of the same name. One of the coalition’s groups is Ahfad al-Rasul, a fighting force in Damascus with affiliated units in Idlib.
The only other non-Islamist force is the Democratic Union Party, a Kurdish force in the northeast. The friendly-sounding name disguises the fact that it is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that appears on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
The political leadership of the Syrian opposition isn’t in much better shape. The moderates have been sidelined. The Clarion Project has reported extensively on the Muslim Brotherhood ties of the Syrian opposition’s interim Prime Minister, Ghassan Hitto. General Idris and the Free Syria Army reject his authority.
The European Union lifted its arm embargo on Syria, paving the way for the arming of the rebels. The West is wishfully thinking that it can accurately “vet” who receives the weapons. All of the rebel groups cooperate on some level and weapons are constantly captured, sold or lost in a chaotic war zone.
The composition of the Syrian rebels begs the question of whether the other side, that of the Assad regime, should become the West’s ally out of necessity. The extremism of the rebels must not blind us to the evils of Assad, either.
Aside from being a gross violator of human rights, he has much blood on his hands from sponsoring terrorism against Americans, Iraqis, Lebanese, Israelis, etc. The inhumanity of his shabiha militia is comparable to any terrorist. His dictatorship governs in a secular fashion, but its anti-Western propaganda is barely distinguishable from that of the Islamists.
Most importantly, Assad is Iran’s closest ally. By some accounts, up to half of Hezbollah’s fighting force is now in Syria fighting on his behalf. The Iran-linked Houthi rebels have even arrived in Syria from Yemen. It’s hard to think of a bigger strategic setback to Iran and Hezbollah than losing Assad.
Of course, the defeat of both Assad and the Islamists and the emergence of a secular democratic Syria would be ideal—but, right now, it isn’t realistic. Before any discussion about intervention can begin, the balance of power within the opposition must shift in favor of the non-Islamist moderates. Until that happens, the West is without any viable options, just as the Free Syria Army founder warned would happen.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on Fox News.